Penelope at Home


I just re-read The Odyssey. If you had told me ten years ago that I would ever re-read The Odyssey by choice, I would have assumed that the future was some kind of dystopian Minority Report-type of place where "choices" were forced upon us and autonomy was a relic of the past. I disliked The Odyssey on par with castor oil and CSPAN2, and what with all the books there are to read in the universe, I assumed the likelihood I'd ever pick it up again was nil.

But three nights ago, I had this dream that I was sitting in my parents' Portland living room as an adult woman (somehow older and wiser than I am in real life), and I was knitting and unknitting a pair of socks. I would knit a sock, and then come to the edge of the heel, and then unwind all the yarn back to the rim of the sock and start over again. When I woke up, I thought, "That was a really deep and meaningful dream. What unique ideas my subconscious has." Then, about ten minutes later, I remembered I'd stolen this idea from Penelope.

I never really liked Penelope. She stood for the shackles of marital misery and self-abandonment. (Academics like to call this "fidelity," but I'm too much of a feminist for all that.) Penelope sits in her house for 20 years while skeezy suitors try to get in her pants. She fends them off by weaving this eternal burial shroud for Laertes, supposedly because she is so in love with her husband, who is off having sex with hot goddesses and witches. (Academics say he was "held against his will," but I'm too much of a feminist for that, too.) 

After my sock dream, I felt like it was possible that The Odyssey was maybe something I should revisit. Then, yesterday, while lost in the stacks of Berkeley's Half Price Book Store (which is amazing, by the way), I found a beautifully weathered paperback version for a dollar, and I dove back in. 

Penelope bothered me less this time around. She didn't really strike me as particularly symbolic of anything -- she was just a woman who wanted to stay home. She wasn't interested in her life changing. Calm down: I know I have oversimplified here; and I'm pretty sure that The Odyssey is supposed to be about Odysseus anyway (manliness, journey, fatherhood, love, adventure, death, loss, etc.). But I am nevertheless interested in this ambivalent woman, guided by Athena, who eschews 108 suitors every day for 20 long years. She sits at night weaving a shawl and unweaving a shawl, and right now, that says a lot about my life.

Going home to Portland (where I spent the last two weeks) feels a lot like knitting and unknitting. Here's an example: My mom has always kept the bad-good foods in this roll-out drawer beneath her cup cabinet in the kitchen. (You know: Cheet-os, Triscuits, sweetened granola, candied ginger, etc. -- all the foods that are bad for you but simultaneously sooooo good.) In high school, I looked forward to plopping my book sack by the front door, kicking off my shoes, and opening the drawer to make a gross-delicious snack to eat in front of the television. This was habit: I did it every day, and it gave me a fleeting pleasure jolt that I learned to distrust when I became an adult. As an adult, I don't keep bad-good foods in the house at all, because they are Kryptonite. I don't have a television either. I have learned healthier after-school routines and activities, and I feel better all around because of them. But whenever I go home to Portland, like clockwork, I open the bad-good drawer and make a pile of the bad-good food, and carry the pile down to my room to watch bad-bad-good television alone in bed. I experience the unlearned pleasure jolt. I unknit the socks.

Going back to a place that has had a significant psychological impact necessarily has this effect. The idea that we ever really change is mythological. Beneath all our layers of learning and experience, we remain plainly ourselves; place and location are proven triggers to bring us back to some version of self we thought we'd outgrown. As Julie Beck wrote in an Atlantic article on the subject:

Memories, too, are cued by the physical environment. When you visit a place you used to live, these cues can cause you to revert back to the person you were when you lived there. [...] The more connections our brain makes to something, the more likely our everyday thoughts are to lead us there. 

I always struggle to go "home." The person I was and the person I am growing into (the same person, but somehow still wildly different) are in constant conflict with each other. Odysseus comes home from his journey, and we are supposed to assume he will live happily ever after. But how could he? Won't the Odysseus of 20 years ago feel challenged by the Odysseus who has gone to the River of Ocean to attract the attention of the departed souls? Won't he wake up in the middle of the night sometimes thinking of Circe? Won't he have aching wanderlust?

In Portland, sitting at the dinner table with my family, there were lots of things that felt very familiar. My father asked open-ended questions like, "What does 'autonomy' mean?" and "Aren't we all slaves, in a way?" My mom made elaborate meals with multiple dishes and explained matter-of-factly how the cherry tomatoes went with the lentil burgers, and the soup could have bacon in it if you wanted "just a little bitty bit of bacon." My sister laughed at things that weren't intended to be funny, which pleased everyone, because sometimes even when you're not trying to be funny, it's kind of nice for someone to think that you are funny. I sulked a lot, maybe because that's what I was used to doing in that space; playing the family victim because it's a role I used to like, and the psychology of the space let me slip in there.

But I also carry the stories of the last ten years I have spent on my own, weaving in and out of relationships, encountering obstacles in my work that I had never imagined, and weathering storms both literal and figurative in a city I never thought I'd live in. And my parents have had a difficult year, with sordid tales all their own. We are our past selves, but we are also our present selves. What feels important, ultimately, is that we are, in moments, together. There may be discomfort in the tension between past and present, but ultimately, love wins. Sitting around the Portland dinner table now is not a theme emblematic of a particular past: it is its own messy, delicate, beautiful moment.

I could sit and analyze for days why my childhood home is so emotionally charged. I could list my socks and my processes of unwinding them all I wanted. But see, Laertes doesn't really need the burial shroud Penelope is weaving for him: he isn't dead yet. I don't really need the socks, either. We go through our lives building our stories because that is what happens naturally. We try to be gentle; we try to be kind; we try to establish "truth"; and we hope for the best. We cherish each other; we struggle; we nestle up to darkness from time to time, acknowledging that so much is necessary for light to reemerge. (Odysseus does; Telemachus does; Penelope does; each in her own way.) Socks never get finished. My mother still holds me in her lap and squeezes me around the middle and tells me I will never be too old for that.

It is my job to experience those moments as they come, and hold them as they pass. The socks are deceptive. It is not the same pair of socks over and over again. It's a different pair every time; I am merely recycling the yarn.